Emerson was nine months old when his family moved in—a chubby-cheeked, curly-haired baby with big blue eyes. The house his parents were remodeling was right next to my property. Only a rickety old fence and a few evergreen shrubs separated their backyard from the vegetable and flower gardens in mine.
That first summer, I enjoyed watching Emerson toddle around his patio as I worked in my gardens. By fall, he recognized me when I said “Hi,” and would give me an openhanded wave and a shy grin. As winter set in and the cold, blustery weather sent us all indoors, I rarely saw the little boy.
The next spring, Emerson began wandering over to see what I was doing. He was intrigued by the dirt and rocks. He was very excited when I gave him a trowel to dig holes in the freshly tilled soil. He watched me mark the rows with string. When I planted seeds, he would follow behind me, patting little chubby hands on the newly covered rows of seeds, just as he saw me do. I was amazed that I had to show him only once where to walk. He never stepped on the rows of vegetables. I was amazed, too, that Emerson became my constant garden companion. Whenever I went to the garden, he would see me and come running over. If his mother came to get him for lunch or a nap, he would cry and beg to stay.
As summer unfolded, Emerson became fascinated with the growing plants. He would carefully touch their leaves or bend over for a closer look. When the strawberry blossoms appeared, I explained how we must watch closely for the berries to come. He was so excited when he discovered his first ripe strawberry! I had a bumper crop that year, so I was able to send him home with bowls of fresh berries. Well, I think some of them made it home.
When summer turned to autumn, Emerson kissed the brightly colored zinnias and patted the yellow calendulas. He especially loved the big orange pumpkins. He would pet them and say, “Pretty, pretty pum-pins.” Then another season of gardening came to an end, winter set in, and I did not see Emerson as often.
The following spring, Emerson appeared as soon as the first bright rays of sunshine warmed the garden soil. He was talking well now—and was all questions. “Sherry, what are you doing? Can I help?” “Can I wear some gloves, too?” “Let me dig. I can dig good!” “Can I hold some seeds?”
I was a little apprehensive about having a rambunctious three-year-old bustling through my gardens, but Emerson was still careful. There were days when I would look up from something I was doing indoors to see a wee, tousled, blond head of hair moving slowly through a flower bed, disappearing behind the red valerian or popping up in front of a rosebush. He would count the buds on a marigold plant or watch a tiny spider on a leaf. It was as though he had found his own secret garden.
When the cherry tomatoes were ripe, he would eat them by the handful. One day I handed him a fresh-picked head of broccoli to take home for dinner. I had to laugh when he handed the half-eaten head to his mother a few minutes later. He loved to munch on the lemon cucumbers and green beans. He even told me just how yummy fresh sweet corn is raw as a snack right there in the corn patch.
Spring arrived early the next year. Emerson was now almost four years old. His love for the garden had not waned over the long winter. Now that he was four, his time was spread out amongst several activities, but I still saw him almost as often. He helped me plant seeds and harvest strawberries. He got excited when the young corn plants came up. He always came running when he saw me to give me a hug and a kiss and ask what I was doing. Sometimes he would stay and visit. Other times he would zip off to ride his tricycle or play catch with his dad.
One day in August, three of my grandchildren came to visit. It was a beautiful, warm day. Their moms were planning on picking blackberries. I was finishing a project in the kitchen when they arrived. After hugs all around, they headed toward the berry patch. I stayed behind. A couple of minutes later, my youngest daughter popped her head in the doorway and said, “Mom, you’ve got to come see this!”
I walked toward the garden and saw Emerson as well as Spencer and Ezra, both aged three, and Cameron, just two, standing among the vegetables. They and their parents were getting a serious garden tour—from Emerson!
Holding corn silk gently in his small hand, Emerson explained, “This has to get brown and kind of dried-up before we can pick the corn. See, it isn’t very fat yet.”
Cameron was fascinated by a big green pumpkin with a touch of orange on it that he had discovered. His toddler hands patted it gently. “That’s a pumpkin!” Emerson explained. He lifted a large leaf to reveal a smaller pumpkin underneath. “There are more over here. Be careful because the leaves and stems are stickery.”
After counting as many pumpkins as they could find, the group moved onto the green bean trellis. “Careful where you walk,” Emerson instructed. Pulling the thick foliage back to reveal a cluster of beans, he explained, “This bean is almost long enough to pick.”
When they examined a row of beets, bending close to see the deep red top of each beet slightly mounded above the dirt, Spencer shouted, “Eek, a spider! Squish it!”
“No!” Emerson ordered. “This is where he lives. Spiders eat bad bugs that hurt the garden.”
I watched in amazement. Emerson knew just what he was talking about—and the younger boys were listening!
The tour ended at the edge of the tomato row where I had planted a robust cherry tomato just for the children to enjoy. With Emerson’s permission, four sets of tiny hands rummaged through the dark green leaves—and four small boys munched on cherry tomatoes, juice dripping from their chins and running down their arms.
In the weeks since, Emerson has given his garden tour to several more visitors. Friends that come to visit his parents are often taken by the hand and pulled into my garden to check out the pumpkins and look for late-season strawberries. He shows them exactly where to walk and names all the vegetables.
Today is a crisp autumn afternoon, and I am writing this at my desk. The pumpkins have been carved, and the leaves are falling from the maple trees.
There is a tiny knock at my back door. I pause and smile. The knock comes again, a little louder.
I must put my pen down. Emerson is peeking in the window. He is ready to help me with fall cleanup in the garden. ❖